Dr. Caroline Leaf is a cognitive neuroscientist who's dedicated her life to making mental health care and knowledge easily applicable, affordable, and accessible to everyone. We had the pleasure of chatting with her about her newest book, Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess, and the 5 simple — and scientifically proven — steps to reduce anxiety, stress and toxic thinking.
Ned: There’s no shortage of good advice, helpful tips, inspirational stories, and motivational quotes out there. I’ve read countless self-help books, and I’m going to be honest — none of it sticks. I mean, maybe it does for a little, but eventually it all falls by the wayside. And reading your book I learned why — and it made me feel a lot less like a failure! Thank you for that! Your book really does feel like the missing piece of the puzzle! Can you explain why there’s such a disconnect between hearing good advice and living a good life? How can we take what we learn and actually apply it in a sustainable and impactful way to finally find mental peace?
Dr. Leaf: We can spend lots of money and time on self-help books and seminars, wellness fads, great teachings, and podcasts. But all this will simply become nice-to-know information if we can’t apply it—more notches on our belt, more knowledge gathering dust. As I discuss in my book, mind management is the key to taking all this useful advice and actually applying it to our lives and making long-term, sustainable changes. It is a lifestyle—one that harnesses the power of our consciousness to make changes in our brain, biology and life.
You are your mind, you are always using your mind, and your mind is always with you. You can go three weeks without food, three days without water, and three minutes without air, but you cannot go three seconds without thinking. So, understanding how the mind works and what mind-management is should be your top priority. Mind-managing your thoughts is a skill that needs to be learned and made into a habit, or, to be more scientifically accurate, automatized, much like you learn how to swim or ride a bicycle.
Ned: You’ve dedicated your life to finding out how to make mental health care and knowledge easily applicable, affordable, and accessible to everyone. Something I found really comforting and encouraging reading your new book is that everything starts with the mind and managing your mind is a skill you can learn with your simple 5 steps. And anyone and everyone can learn it — I mean, even people who’ve experienced traumatic brain injuries. What would you say to people who are right now in the depths of despair, and even people who are just resigned to a certain way of being, to give them hope?
Dr. Leaf: You can learn to manage your mind because the mind and brain CAN CHANGE AT ANY AGE. Never, ever forget this. No matter where you are, where you have been or what you have gone through, there is always hope. At any age, any place, and any time you can learn how to manage your mind and transform your life. You are not just your biology or what has happened to you.
Ned: The number of people experiencing anxiety, depression, and burnout is at an all-time high. This past year has really made clear what you’ve been saying all along — that these are really normal and really common responses to living in this world. And also that these things that are classed as mental illness are actually warning signals, telling us that there’s something wrong we need to address. How can we embrace these as the helpful messengers they are when they’re so hard to live with and then find the actual message behind them to finally get out of the negative loop?
Dr. Leaf: Yes, this can be hard, and it is a process (there are no magic bullets or quick-fixes when it comes to mental health, regardless of what someone may tell you or try to sell you), but the human mind is more than capable of dealing with challenges and tough emotions—you just need to be taught how to do this mind work, which is the foundation of my latest book. These thoughts and feelings are signals or messengers telling you that something is going on in your life that you need to address, not signs that something is wrong with you or that you have failed in some way. They are part of being human!
Ned: Your whole book blew my mind, and something I found particularly fascinating is the hard science behind the mind-body connection, how your thoughts directly impact your health. For example, how stress wreaks havoc on your immune system. And then how changing your mind can literally change your DNA and influence your biomarkers like telomeres. When we think about longevity and living a healthy lifestyle, it’s usually in the context of diet and exercise, but there’s more to it. How does neurocycling — healthy mind management — fit in? And what does committing to it look like?
Dr. Leaf: The mind is your aliveness; everything begins and ends in the mind. As I mentioned, you can go three weeks without food, three days without water, and three minutes without air, but you cannot go three seconds without thinking. You can never escape your mind—it is always with you, and it is always active, even when you are asleep!
To make healthy lifestyle changes sustainable, you must use your mind, or your ability to think, feel and choose: to start a new exercise regimen, to eat healthy, to be a part of a community, to find your purpose—all these things start in the mind, which affects every part of us, including our biology. This is why mind management is so important—when you know how to use your mind, this is the foundation for the “good life”.
When we apply mind-management, we’ll learn how to actually use the advice and information we gather as we go through life. When we learn how to manage our mind, we can go from posting inspiring quotes on social media to inspiring others through the way we actually live our own life.
Ned: Can we talk about toxic positivity? Because if I see one more meme about good vibes only I’m going to lose it! There’s so much out there about protecting your energy and raising your vibrations — and that’s all great. But it feels at times a bit like every man for himself, and I worry it's all being misconstrued in a way that leaves people who are hurting and lonely and in need of love and care, without. How can we better be there for eachother?
Dr. Leaf: Toxic positivity is, at its core, when we use positive thinking and affirmations to avoid dealing with a negative feeling, experience or situation. Essentially, it is when we use something that is on the surface positive to suppress or ignore an issue we are dealing with or something a loved one is going through. It's the bandaid on the pussy wound - it doesn’t fix anything.
In my practice, my travels and in my research, I have often observed that people tend to equate individual happiness and completing some checklist of good activities with the good life, and they pursue it as an end goal. And, when they don’t get what they want, or when positive affirmations and resolutions do not “work”, they are at a loss, and think they are not good enough and cannot be fixed, which creates all sorts of identity and mental health problems.
Yes, it is good to be happy, but that is not all life is. It is perfectly okay to experience other emotions like sadness and grief when things don’t work out (which often happens, since we do not control everything!), and learn from these experiences—this is often how we grow and mature as human beings. It’s very normal to feel sad or down, and we should let our loved ones know this and that we are there for them when they need us. These emotions are signals that we need to listen to, not suppress or cover with “happiness”, conditioned responses or condolences or a resolution to be better.
In my research, we actually demonstrated that embracing negative emotions as warning signals, finding the underlying cause(s), AND then managing this by processing and reconceptualizing our thinking, results in a significant improvement in bodily inflammation, cellular health and biological aging. It also empowers us to feel in control of our minds, which can increase our feelings of control over our mental health struggles by up to 81%. Feeling bad is not unhealthy if you learn how to manage your thinking!
If we try to suppress these emotions, on the other hand, they will explode in other areas of our life, which can impact our wellbeing. All emotions have “energy”, and this energy is never lost, just transferred. If we don’t find a way through mind management to deal with our uncomfortable emotions, as talk about in my latest book Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess, this energy will be transferred into other parts of our life and can wreak all sorts of havoc. We cannot run from our problems—eventually they will catch up with us!